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Jewish World Review Dec. 27, 2001 /12 Teves 5762

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports

Nation-building's perils, from Haiti to Kabul

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- AS a new government takes power in Kabul, our latest adventure in nation-building beckons. This is a project that will make Haiti look easy and Bosnia a breeze.

It's feared that if the West doesn't bring stability to Afghanistan, terrorists will slither back in.

But as the past decade demonstrated, we cannot magically bestow democracy or respect for human rights on Third World hellholes. Afghanistan would have to improve considerably to qualify as a pit of perdition.

The quasi-nation -- a 19th century creation of Britain and Russia -- has had 22 years of almost continuous warfare. A vicious Soviet occupation was followed by chaos, as conquering holy warriors fought over spoils. Tens of thousands were slaughtered, and things got so ugly that in 1996 Taliban thugs were welcomed as enlightened reformers.

Afghanistan's interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai, was chosen at a U.N.-sponsored conference, where unity was bought with promises of Western aid.

Karzai is described as a "tribal leader," which sounds so much better than warlord. Initially, Karzai himself supported the former mullah-ocracy. He turned against it not out of any passion for Jeffersonian principles, but because he came to view the Taliban as a puppet of Pakistan.

Afghanistan is a simmering stew of religious fanaticism and murderous ethnic rivalries. Adult males and even teens are better armed than your average gun show. Nearly 80 percent of Afghans inhabit rural villages ruled by "elders." In the past, successful central governments knew which of these warlords to bribe and left the rest alone.

Already, one tribal leader is threatening to declare war on the new government if there's a repetition of last Thursday's U.S. attack on a convoy in eastern Afghanistan, which left dozen's dead.

Our military says the convoy was carrying Taliban fighters. Locals say they were tribal honchos heading to Kabul to celebrate the installation of the Karzai government. Given the propensity of Afghans to change sides based on personal advantage, both may be right.

The United States and international welfare agencies will now proceed to pump in billions in development aid, provide advisors and make cooing sounds every time the infant state takes a few faltering steps. And if we're very lucky, the current government of this turbaned asylum won't be too brutal, corrupt or inept. But don't count on it.

Remember 1994, when (in Bill Clinton's hilarious words) we returned democracy to Haiti? With 20,000 U.S. troops, we ousted the military junta -- which didn't do badly by Haitian standards -- and installed that great democrat and Castro crony, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Well, things have been swell ever since -- give or take a few political killings, a lot of drug-running, rigged elections and pervasive corruption.

The United States spent $3 billion reinstating Aristide (elected president in 1990, deposed in 1991) and attempting to reform Haiti's national police.

After several years out of office, Aristide was re-elected last year in a farce that major opposition parties (and 85 percent of the electorate) boycotted, and international observers decried.

Last week, there was an attack on the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, which may have been a coup attempt or staged as an excuse for Aristide to suppress the opposition. In the city of Gonaives, two "suspected collaborators" were burned to death by mobs allied with Aristide's Lavalas Family Party -- which bears a striking resemblance to the Sopranos.

The amount of cocaine entering America from Haiti has doubled since 1994. It's estimated three-quarters of the nation's 4,500-man police force is on the payroll of various Colombian drug lords.

After we brought democracy back to Haiti, we returned multicultural harmony to Bosnia and ended ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. NATO officials warn that any reduction in the Bosnia peacekeeping force of 18,000 will lead to a resumption of mayhem -- which should give you an idea of how much peace the peacekeepers have brought to the province in six years.

All of which is not to say that the United States was wrong to intervene in Afghanistan. But let's be honest -- just as our chief interest in Haiti was keeping Haitian boat people out of America, our sole interest in Afghanistan was expelling the terrorists. The best we can hope for is a government that manages to keep the peace and keep out terrorists without excessive brutality.

But what passes for a legislature in Afghanistan will never be known as the mother of parliaments. Human rights groups will not hold awards banquets in Kabul. The more we try to make Afghanistan like us, the more ordinary Afghans will hate us and the more grief we will buy for ourselves in the long run.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate